sually, when I sit down to write this column, I have a topic ready to roll. Either Aaron has assigned a theme week, or I've got a clear goal in mind. I hammer it out and stay as close to task as possible, ignoring the chance at long digressions and keying in on the topic of the week. It's a bit like going to a tournament to play Magic: you know what you want going in, you perform, and you try to win at all costs. (Whether my columns are Top 8 performances or 0-2 drops is kinda up to you.)
But this week, I'd like to write this column more in the style that I play Magic: casually. It won't be exactly stream of consciousness – that's annoying to read – but it will jostle back and forth a little. About seven different topics are going to play chaos multiplayer in my head, and who knows what will come out on top? We'll find out at about the same time, I expect.
Slide, Slide, Come on Ride
Let me start with a deck that I mentioned once in passing a few months ago. It's a green-white Astral Slide deck meant for chaos play. (Ironically, though it does nothing to hurt teammates, it has performed far better in free-for-alls than in team formats. Go figure.) Scourge added a great deal to it:
Before going on, I'll note that I break some of my own deck-building rules on this one. Most flagrantly, I have lots of "one-of" cards in this deck: Invigorating Boon, Auramancer, Gilded Light, Noble Templar, Wirewood Guardian...and those aren't even the rares!
I also pretty much ignore the concept of a mana curve. Let's just say turn seven is full of choices for me.
But I do all this because I have a particular philosophy about white-green decks in multiplayer: I hate them. Honestly. The color combination does nothing for me. I can't get rid of a single creature when I need to, I can't punch through for lethal damage, and whatever mass removal you'd normally pack (e.g., Wrath of God) runs against what the green half of your deck (e.g., creatures) is trying to get done.
It's at this point that tired minds turn to Swords to Plowshares (and in fact, my green-white spider deck does exactly that). But here, I wanted to take advantage of Astral Slide, which I initially thought was trash. A friend turned me onto a trick some Pro Tour regulars were toying with: Astral Slide – Cartographer – Tranquil Thicket. It works like this: you cycle the Thicket (or Secluded Steppe), you slide your Cartographer out, you draw a card. At the end of the turn, you get your Cartographer back... and the Thicket you cycled returns to your hand.
I have no idea how this panned out on the tournament scene. But in a multiplayer game, when you have a few mana open, it's nice to draw three or four extra cards between one turn and the next. It draws you to a nifty win condition, like Phantom Nishoba or Eternal Dragon. (Yes, a nearly-depleted Nishoba returns from a Slide with seven counters. That's why Spike Feeder and Spike Weaver are in the deck, too.)
Once you've got a base like that, you spend the rest of the deck protecting it and trying to avoid a serious shellacking from your group. Sterling Grove keeps Astral Slide somewhat safe, Auramancer brings it back if you're stuck with three in the graveyard, and Gilded Light is for those fabulous times when the Super-Bright Red Mage throws a 24-point Fireball at your face.
Playing the deck gives you a good idea as to how to cope with unwanted attention. It's pretty hard to keep more than two or three creatures in play at once, and not particularly advisable anyway. You want to have mana open to threaten cycling, once the Slide is out – and the fewer creatures you have, the more realistic it appears that you could come out unaffected by a Jokulhaups. (Someday, this deck will get rebuilt as a red-white, and use that global clearer!)
Miraculous Recovery may actually be the most important card in the deck – it is a wonderful surprise, because players will spend a great deal of time and effort nailing your Spike Feeder. Bringing it back with an extra counter is a polite way to deliver a rude insult.
Before I go on for much longer, I'll discuss one last card in the deck: Forgotten Ancient. This MagicTheGathering.com creation represents a point where I think a lot of decks start to flounder – the "I can fit one more idea in there!" point.
The deck is a cycling deck. Forgotten Ancient is irrelevant to this process – in fact, if you Slide out the Ancient, you lose whatever counters it has built up. But I threw one in there because (a) I had one and I wanted to play one, darn it; and (2) it does do lovely things with the Spikes and Phantoms.
Just last Thursday, I ripped, played, and won a foil Forgotten Ancient in a draft with my friends. This is my second copy of the card, so the natural inclination is to throw it in with the first one. (I have no problems playing foils like this. I use sleeves religiously, and I'm a careful shuffler.) But you know what? The first one shouldn't even be in there. To me, it's just renting space until I find a new use for it – and its foily brethren.
Feels like a good segue. What ought I to do with something like that? I mean, I could have the artist sign it, but I don't get out anymore to Pro Tours or other events artists attend. I could try the designer – but that would entail mailing it to each of you, and as much as I trust you all, I'm not waiting. (Plus, think of how iddy-biddy each signature would have to be!)
Since I'm a columnist here on the same site as the contest, perhaps signing it myself would add value – but I doubt it, and that seems a bit pretentious anyway. So what can I do? Should I try to get someone's signature on it – or should I just shut up and be glad I have a foil of this thing at all?
I'll take suggestions – on the message boards, please, for something like this.
I'm realizing partway through this article that it's reading a bit like a blog. (For the uninitiated: short for "web log," or diary-style piece on the Internet.) In keeping with that feel, I'm going to stop for now, and pick this up later. I'm past deadline, anyway (Aaron is a saint) – so another day or won't kill us. I'll keep the card names to a minimum, for the sake of Wizards staff.
Writing About… Writing
So it's later, and I'm thinking to myself: Rosewater gets to write about what design is like, and Randy gets to write about what development is like. Brian gets to write about what being a good player is like (talking to guys like him makes me feel like Doctor McCoy in Star Trek IV asking Spock about the afterlife– "impossible, without a common frame of reference"). And Mark G. – well, he's busy dodging slings and arrows from Type 1 enthusiasts. But have any of us ever given you readers a sense of what it's like to be a writer?
It's actually a common reader question – "what do I have to do to get a writing gig like you've got," or "what's it like to do what you do," or "do you do other writing." Since it would be too self-indulgent to blow an entire week's column on the topic, I guess now is a good time to treat the topic briefly, and then move on.
If you talk to other Magic writers around the Internet, you'll find a lot of them are excellent Magic players who happen to be able to turn a phrase. Kai Budde, for example, writes excellent articles – not just because he's the best player in the world, but because he has a terrific sense of humor that comes through at just the right intervals. I don't think Kai would present himself as a writer first – he'd say he's a Magic player who happens to write.
Then there are others among us who aren't exactly Kai when it comes to play skill. But we've been writers forever. To me, the writing I do here is one step in a long road. It's a very enjoyable step, and it will last for a long time, if they'll continue to have me – but to me it's a writing job first, and a Magic adventure second.
I've never had a better writing job – but in the wider scheme of the writing world, it's a small gig. My wife's about to sign a six-book contract with Kensington publishers, and it's worth over ten times what I make in a month here. I'm deeply humbled by her success, and suggest that anyone who wants to learn how to make a career of writing talk to her, and not to me.
That said, to answer the question specific to Magic sites – I wrote for at least one Magic site every week for over three years before this site began. And I'm new, compared to someone like a Mike Flores. (Those of you who aren't enjoying today's offering are welcome to thank Mr. Flores, who along with Charles "Tuna" Hwa gave me my start on The Dojo. Their fault. Not mine. This whole runaway train could have come to a screeching wreck eighty-eight miles up the track, deep in the mountains, with no one any the wiser. Once they let me through the pass, it was all over.)
So how to get a job like this, if this is your aspiration? First, you shoot higher – because that will getting you thinking long term, like five to ten years long term, and that's where your head needs to be. Second, you participate. Get onto message boards, write opinion letters to site editors, learn their publishing guidelines, and then submit an article or two. (MagicTheGathering.com isn't taking unsolicited submissions; but just about every other site is.)
When nothing happens, repeat. Persistence pays off.
When something happens, dig in. This is where you pay persistence back – by becoming a regular presence, every week. Readers and editors need to count on you. So become the most dependable person they've ever met. I didn't miss a single deadline, for any site, until I got my last day job a couple years ago. (Now, I'll admit I'm slightly more erratic.)
Once you've done this for a while, you'll do one of two things: you'll either (a) run out of things to say, or (b) enter a rhythm. If you write stuff like everyone else does, you're likely to find yourself on empty before long. But if your writing adds value to what's out there – if you're doing something new and different and energetic – you'll find that rhythm. You'll think of new angles to take, new topics to explore, new ways to go over old territory, and new conversations to have with readers. You'll engage those readers, and they'll become an integral part of your writing.
And so we answer the other question – what's this like? Well, once you find the right group of readers, it's like talking to your friends about a game you love, which each of you probably does all the time. I'm not an altruist – getting money for it is deeply satisfying. But I started five years ago without pay, because I had the energy for that conversation. I'd like to think I still do.
Out of energy – will continue conversation later!
Copying and Countering
Let's go back to deck building, but from a different angle. About one out of twenty decks that I generate for my articles actually get created. (I couldn't possibly spend the time or money making every deck I think up for Serious Fun – which is why I'm careful to say, on occasions like these, that I would prefer it if readers saw those decks as rough guidelines and idea generators, rather than hard and fast guarantees!)
The first deck I built on this site, featuring Radiate and Seize the Day, is still together, though I don't play it much. (I don't have the heart to pull it apart.) And most recently, I've actually built the deck I suggested for Mischievous Quanar a few weeks ago, though I've made some changes:
I'm trying to wean myself off of too many cycling lands – because of decks like the one at the beginning of this article, some players in our group are threatening to play Stabilizer! But I don't mind extra lands, anyway – this deck likes its mana.
The first version of the deck had very few spells in it that the Quanar would target – you played it to copy your opponents' (or teammates') spells. But I agreed with a few readers who wrote in and said they really preferred to use this quirky little beast with spells of their own. Swords is an obvious choice – sorry about that – but Debt of Loyalty and Eye for an Eye pick up the creative slack, I hope. Errata on Eye for an Eye allows you to choose to replicate any damage that hit you that turn – so you can time it as you like, and either copy one source twice or pick two sources controlled by two different players.
Tariff is less of a Quanar target (since you'll probably lose the Quanar as a result of copying it), and more of finesse card in a deck that has many (zero converted cost) morphs.
I decided not to put any counterspells in the deck, other than Stifle. (Stifle is a sweet, sweet card. I love the idea of using it proactively on stuff like Phage the Untouchable and what not; but I'm unwrapping the uses of this card carefully, one deck at a time – and I want to see it smash other players' plans for a while.) If I want to stop a spell – for example, a mass removal spell like Wrath of God – then I'll do it with a Meddling Mage.
Counterspells in multiplayer have gotten some interesting articles on the Internet over the past few weeks. I've given my perspectives on this topic before – like other one-for-one strategies like land destruction or discard, you've got a hard road to travel here. But many cards can help you. Here are the Top Ten counterspells worth playing in group, in rough ascending order of utility. Don't take the ranking too seriously, though – it really depends on the deck and your environment:
10. Decree of Silence. Once you or your team has board superiority, this is a nice wall for opponents who want to try to surprise you out of a win.
9. Exclude. Getting a card back takes away the basic disadvantage of counterspelling in multiplayer.
8. Confound. It makes you wait for a spell you know you have to stop, rather than tempting you to stop a general spell (say, a big creature) that you have no idea where it's pointed. Gains you back a card.
7. Undermine. This represents a path to victory, as well as a counterspell.
6. Forbid. You have to account for those cards you lost to buyback; but assuming you can, repeatable countermagic is lovely.
5. Spelljack. Too funny not to include.
4. Misdirection. Elegant, and terrifying for your opponents if they're not sure if you have it.
3. Stifle. This may go to the top of my list, in time.
2. Willbender. Like Deflection, but you can target abilities, too. Has anyone else noticed that while basic counterspells are getting more expensive, redirection-style spells are getting easier to play? See also: Divert.
1. Mystic Snake. You stop a spell outright. You get a creature. You get to hissssss at spells you don't like, and mean it. You can bounce it, you can sack it to something else, you can even play Rush of Knowledge for four on your next turn to go find another one. If there's anything wrong with this card, I can't find it. (Wizards even kept its cost more than three, which was essential to avoid Aluren abuse.)
Add your own favorite spell-stopper to the message boards. Heaven knows there are many more options out there!
If none of these work, you'll have to try something desperate, like retreat. That's right, leave the table when it looks like some heat is coming. Use the bathroom, or go get snacks, or take a closer look at that lovely framed picture in your host's hallway.
Now, this doesn't do too well in our group – if you leave the table, you're actually more likely to get a knife in the back – but there are some multiplayer groups out there that may buy this. I think your best bet is the snack route – and offer to get something for everyone at the table! I mean, who can Terminate a creature controlled by such a kind-hearted soul, especially one who's holding your can of Coke and a cheese tray, am I right?
Wizard Needs Food… Badly
Since we were just on the topic of food, let's talk about this most important aspect of casual play. I can't believe it's taken me a year and half to get to this! As any good host knows, people aren't showing up at your house (or at the local shop, or wherever) for your company. No, you're simply not that interesting, in comparison to food.
Pizza is the common meal for Magic players here in America; but for hosts who like to broaden their horizons – and local shops who may want to diversify a bit – may I recommend a few alternate offerings?
The outdoor grill. More doable at homes than at stores, where I imagine restrictions apply. You can grill all sorts of food that is friendlier to Magic cards than sauce-laden pizza. Bratwursts are my personal favorite; but everything from corn on the cob to fish works on a grill. And did I say fish...?
Calzones. As an Italian-American, I can't completely diss the best cuisine in the world. Easier to eat than pizza, and with a more satisfying texture when done right, this is a food worth learning how to cook. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do a calzone right. Someone put a recipe up on the message boards – first serious offering on the boards will get, um, well, my undying gratitude.
Chicken strips. Ah, the chicken strip. The best part of the bird.
Sushi. One of these days, I'm going to offer this to our group when I host. (No, not this week, guys – I'll give you fair warning!) I make a pretty mean tekka maki, if I do say so myself. And as long as you're careful with the soy sauce, it's one of the neatest meals going.
Veggie trays. My oh my, the list just gets less and less manly as we go, doesn't it? But seriously, if you throw some bacon dip in the center of broccoli and celery, you won't feel like you've bartered away the entirety of your masculinity.
Venison jerky, nachos, and beer. Sorry, had to get the heartland back with me.
Anyhow, try something different the next time you're playing.
Faces in the Crowd
We're coming up on closing time, I think. I'll shift gears again and talk about a card I'm not sure any of us are playing yet: Faces of the Past.
What lifts this card out of chaff status and into playability are two words: "or untap". This thing can work as an incentive or disincentive to creature destruction, and that opens up possibilities.
Most of us will think of Elves first. Screw Elves. I didn't do eight pages of pseudo-blogging to finish up with Elves. Goblins look pretty promising, with Goblin Sharpshooter and Goblin Medics playing prominent roles. You could even use cards like Nefashu and Gravespawn Sovereign, for an unconventional Zombie deck. (Will tap dance for brains.)
But here's where I ended up:
Viscerid Drone? Viscerid Drone! Go, baby! Your day has finally come!
Feel free to use Snow-covered Islands instead of regular islands. You'll find the deck plays equally brilliantly.
If black isn't your fancy, or you'd rather not depend on Unnatural Selection, how about this magnificent three-color creation:
Faces of the Past, Marjhan, and Goblin Medics: how good is this against birds? The phrase you are looking for, I believe, is "supa-tight". You may be able to get by on only three Marjhan, but you do this at your own risk!!!
Since I have exactly zero Freyalise's Winds myself, the chances of me building and testing this deck are low. (Why not substitute Temporal Distortion, you ask? I answer: never, ever ask questions that give a hint of suggesting Temporal Distortion, in any situation.) I think I have a pretty good reputation as a guy who doesn't advise his readers to build the last deck you find in an article of mine. No reason to go against type, here!
Thanks for walking down a winding road with me.
Anthony may be reached at email@example.com. Regretfully, Anthony cannot help with decks any more. But he loves hearing from fellow players on just about any other topic.